Retouched Blast may be a piece of art 1991-92 MSL PREVIEW

October 18, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

A restoration seemed in order, but by the time Blast coach Kenny Cooper was finished he had ripped up the canvas and started over.

Tradition had taken the Blast to the top of the Major Soccer League, but holding on to the past had also taken it from first to last in one painful season. The team lost 20 one-goal games and compiled a 21-31 record, worst in franchise history and the only losing season in franchise history.

It was not a pretty picture.

It was time to unload tradition in order to get it back. But tradition died hard. One by one Blast veterans fell from the roster: Goalkeeper Scott Manning, 10 years. Forward Tim Wittman, 10 years. Defender Bruce Savage, seven years. Defender Richard Chinapoo, six years. Only Savage left of his own free will.

By the time it was over, only five of the 18 players on last year's roster were left and they were the foundation, as Cooper began working on a canvas he hopes will turn out to be a masterpiece.

The first brush stroke: Rebuilding with hard-hitting defenders and a solid goalkeeper. With veteran Mike Stankovic serving as the anchor, in comes All-Star Iain Fraser, consistent Doug Neely, hard-hitting Emil Dragicevic and speedy David Eise.

They are mirror images of each other: skillful ballhandlers, capable of scoring, each with the ability to make opposing offenses pay.

"We're ready to get out of training camp," says forward Rusty Troy, who is happy to open the Major Soccer League season tomorrow night against Dallas, 7:35, in the Baltimore Arena. "It's tough to play against these guys every day. They kick you and you want to kick them back."

With the arrival of those four defenders and goalkeeper Cris Vaccaro, the defense looks decidedly able. It is a situation which allows veteran Mark Mettrick to move from the back to his natural position at midfield, where his passing ability will be used to good advantage on a line with Troy and Billy Ronson.

Next, on Cooper's pallet: Reloading the offense, with power and balance. The offense already had finesse with Domenic Mobilio, consistency with Ronson and persistence with Troy. All-Star Waad Hirmez adds the balance with his big left foot. And Rod Castro brings play-making talent and skill.

"We're going to be the team that dictates the pace," says Mobilio. "Our defense is quicker and that will make our offense go forward quicker. We're going to catch people by surprise."

Suddenly a team that looked out of sync in the MSL, where everyone else is going for offensive power, looks in step for the future.

"It's going to take time," Cooper cautions. "It's going to take patience. We're going to make mistakes, but we're going to put life back in the game. The pieces are starting to come into focus and over the long haul, I think it's going to work."

The final stroke: Rekindling enthusiasm for the game, team spirit and unity. In the end, this may be the masterstroke that holds Cooper's new work of art together.

"There are no superstars nor anyone who thinks he's a superstar on this team," says Ronson. "This year's team gets along. No one minds laughing at each other or at themselves. It's a nice change. If something happens, everyone laughs instead of pointing fingers.

"I've never experienced this kind of team here in the states," says the 5-foot-4 midfielder. "It's almost like an English side, with everyone kidding around."

Ronson is not alone in his assessment. Mobilio, who has led the Blast's scoring attack the last two seasons, describes the atmosphere as "a breath of fresh air." Defender Doug Neely recalls how his teammates in Kansas City "just went through the motions. Not like here, where everyone is excited even in practice."

And Hirmez, who is the team's most boisterous player, says, "It can only be healthy to have a good time at work."

But that doesn't mean they're not serious.

"We all know there is a time to be focused and concentrated," says Castro. "But you need a little humor to let off steam. The test will come when we hit a low point. Then we'll see if the humor can be maintained. I think the attitude we have will help us through the rough times."

Cooper's new canvas goes on display for the first time tomorrow. The 40-game season will determine whether it's a masterpiece.

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